A year and a half ago, UTEP track coach Bob Kitchens assumed he had seen the last of Blessing Okagbare in a Miner uniform.
She had just won an Olympic bronze medal in the long jump, and the college game just didn't seem to hold much more for her.
Fast forward 18 months, and here Okagbare still is, dominating the NCAA and elevating herself to a pedestal no other female athlete ever has been on.
"She's unique," Kitchens said of the only Olympic medalist still competing in NCAA track. "No doubt, she is the best woman's athlete I've ever been around my entire coaching career. "There's nothing mediocre about her."
Okagbare admits to being a bit surprised that she is still competing for UTEP. What happened was that her timing was awful for her and great for the Miners.
Just as she won her bronze medal in Beijing, the world economy turned down, and the victims include world-class female long jumpers, who no longer had the big professional dollars guaranteed.
A scholarship at UTEP ended up looking more and more attractive to the Nigerian, and here she is.
Then, rather amazingly, Okagbare found new, fertile ground to explore. Over the past year, one of the world's best jumpers has turned herself into one of the world's best sprinters.
Last week in Lincoln, Neb., she ran a 7.22 seconds in the 60-yard dash, making her the sixth-best performer in the world this year and the best in the NCAA.
"My coach said I had a lot of speed, but I wasn't running Advertisement sprints," Okagbare said. "He said, 'Let's give it a try.' I've done more than what I expected. I had always thought I'd be long jump, long jump, long jump.
This is exciting. I never thought I'd be this good at sprinting. "This has surprised me. I'm doing better at sprinting than jumping now."
That began to show last year, when she ran the 100-meter dash in 11.16 seconds to put her in the top 30 performers in the world. And and now she is hitting a new level.
"When she ran that 7.22 last week, she was so easy, so fluid, there was never any doubt who was going to win the race, it was just a matter of how far," Kitchens said.
"She wasn't that good of a sprinter when she came here. She wasn't anything spectacular." And now?
"Whatever Marion Jones did, she can do," Kitchens said, comparing Okagbare to the athlete who won five medals at the 2000 Olympics. "There's more upside there." That's certainly a long-term goal for Okagbare.
"I'm working toward it, with the grace of God," she said. "Who am I to say no? Just grab it. If I can stay healthy, I want to be the best. My goal is to be the best in the world."
The short-term goal may sound quaint for someone who has an Olympic medal, but she wants to win the Conference USA indoor meet at the end of this month. "Blessing is not a selfish person," Kitchens said.
"She wants to help the team. There's something about being on an American team. It's not like a club team in Nigeria.
It's very special to buy into a team." And Okagbare has proven special as well. Kitchens still remembered the words of Tony Osheku, his contact in Nigeria who told him about Okagbare.
"I knew nothing except that she was a good triple jumper and long jumper," Kitchens said.
"Tony said, 'Coach, Blessing's going to make you smile.' I didn't understand what he was telling me, but he was right."
By Bret Bloomquist / El Paso Times
Bret Bloomquist may be reached at email@example.com; +1 (915) 546-6359.